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Following Recent Court Rulings, Proposed Bill Would Improve Ballot Access in Pennsylvania

Author: Andrew Gripp
Created: 03 August, 2015
Updated: 21 November, 2022
4 min read

As reported by Richard Winger on Ballot Access News, the Senate State Government Committee will hold a hearing on September 22 regarding SB 495, the Voter's Choice Act, which aims to enhance ballot access in Pennsylvania for minor party candidates.

Currently, statewide candidates not associated with the major parties need to collect signatures equal to at least 2 percent of the total votes received by the top vote-getter in the previous election. In 2006, that required some candidates to collect more than 67,000 signatures.

For major party candidates, however, the route to the November ballot is substantially easier. Democrats and Republicans need to collect only 2,000 signatures to appear on a primary ballot for most contests, and, if they win, are automatically placed on the general election ballot.

The Voter's Choice Act would make it easier for minor party candidates to appear on the November ballot. It would grant ballot access to nominees from parties that comprise 0.05 percent of the registered party members in the state.

According to Pennsylvania's Department of State figures, there were 8,251,050 registered party members as of November 2014. According to the bill's stipulation, at this level, that means that parties with approximately 4,125 registered party members would qualify for ballot access in statewide races. Currently, only the Libertarian and Green parties meet this threshold.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Michael Folmer (R-Lebanon) and has support from Republicans and Democrats.

If passed, the bill would follow on the heels of recent court rulings that have begun to ease the burdens that have long hampered minor parties in the state.

In March 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Stewart Dalzell invalidated three provisions regarding signature collection challenged by the state's Green and Libertarian parties: the ban on out-of-state circulators, the requirement that each petition sheet be notarized, and the prohibition on a voter signing for more than one minor party in any given election year.

In July 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Stengel ruled against a feature of a 1937 state election law that allows those who successfully challenge the validity of petition signatures to seek reimbursement by minor party or independent candidates.

Because of the high cost of defending signatures, some candidates withdraw their candidacies rather than engage in legal contests with the deep-pocketed major parties.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of the "chilling effect" – to use the words of Judge Stengel – of Pennsylvania's strict ballot access laws is illustrated by the case of Ralph Nader, who was driven off the ballot in Pennsylvania in 2004. Oliver Hall – a lawyer who has represented Nader and other litigants in Pennsylvania's ballot access cases – recently described in the The Harvard Law Record the collusion between the Democratic Party and the law firm Reed Smith, LLP to challenge Nader.

According to FEC filings, the Democratic National Committee paid the firm, which had previously represented the wife of John Kerry (the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee), $136,000 for political and legal consulting services.

A 2008 investigation led by then-Attorney General Tom Corbett revealed that House Minority Whip Michael Veon of Beaver County ran an operation that involved dozens of state employees working to prepare the legal case against Nader's petition signatures before handing the case over to Reed Smith attorney Efrem Grail, who coordinated the employees' activities. More than half of these employees received bonuses – in part for their "Nader efforts."

According to Hall, some signatures were thrown out because signers used a nickname like "Bill" rather than "William," or because of discrepancies between a signatory's current and registered address.

Because of alleged "pervasive fraud" that resulted in more than 30,000 signatures being invalidated, Nader's name was removed from the ballot (contradicting Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor's determination that there was "no evidence" of such fraud). The court – some of whose justices had received campaign contributions from Reed Smith, saddled Nader with $81,000 in fees as a result of the 1937 law, and in 2007, two of his bank accounts were frozen.

A similar ruling kept Carl Romenelli, a Green Party candidate contesting a U.S. Senate seat, off the ballot in 2006. He was ordered to pay $80,000 in legal fees for his failed petition defense.

Because of the high cost of gathering signatures (at approximately $2 a piece) and defending them against challenges by the major parties, Democrats and Republicans have seen reduced competition in recent elections. In his July 2015 decision, Judge Stengel observed that no minor or independent candidates appeared in statewide races in 2006, 2010, and 2014.

According to Richard Winger, determining ballot access on the basis of party registration rather than petitions is sensible because the former more accurately reflects the electorate's support for minor parties. Moreover, the former is more cost effective, since most states already collect information regarding voters' partisan affiliation, whereas the petition process is expensive and cumbersome.

Folmer has proposed similar bills in two previous sessions, but they died in committee. The Pennsylvania Ballot Access Coalition (PABAC), which supports the bill, is "very optimistic that this legislation will finally pass this session."

Photo: Pennsylvania capitol / Credit: John Bilou / shutterstock.com

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